Whoever being depraved,
Devoid of self-control
Devoid of self-control
Dons the yellow robe,
He is surely not worthy of it.
But, whoever is purged of depravity,
Well-established in virtues
And filled with self-control
He is indeed worthy of the yellow robe.
There are many fine Buddhist monks around; I should know as I’ve met quite a number of them over the past quarter of a century. There are monks devoted to meditation, to serving their communities, to studying & sharing the Buddhadharma, and generally leading their communities to behave with wisdom and compassion. Unfortunately, this isn’t the whole story. Across the Buddhist world there are innumerable accounts monks unworthy of the yellow robe (or whatever colour it happens to be!). In verse 9 of the Dhammapada, quoted above, it gives three main reasons why someone won’t be fit to be a monk (or nun).
The first reason is that someone is “depraved.” The Oxford English Dictionary defines depravity as “moral corruption; wickedness,” and when considering the rules for bhikkhus & bhikkhunis (ordained monks & nuns), it’s easy to see why a depraved individual would be considered unfit to be a Buddhist monastic. Depravity can cover pretty much any wicked, corrupt behaviour including sexual misconduct, violence, financial corruption, verbal abuse and more. Considering monks & nuns are supposed to be pacifist, kindly-spoken people that don’t handle money (or, in some Buddhist sects, handle it with honesty), it’s clear that a depraved person isn’t the perfect candidate for the monastic life.
In neighbouring Thailand (where this author lives), horrendous stories of monks’ misdeeds are commonplace. Some of them are so extreme as to seem unbelievable…unfortunately, they’re not. One such story is that of ‘Venerable’ Porn (yes, that is his name!), a 54 year-old monk in Nakhon Sawan, a province in central Thailand. Jilted by his 15 year-old lover, the monk shot her several times in the head & chest. Apparently, the monk had begun the affair with the girl a few years prior to the shooting, and had given her money for ‘monthly expenses.’ The monk confessed the crime to the police after being arrested. He was defrocked and formally charged with the girl’s murder. I myself have been told first-hand of Thai monks attempting to rape other monks, as well as the problem of poor family’s boys entered into monasteries as novices only to end up having the wrong kinds of lessons from their older monkish ‘mentors.’
The second reason given that someone is unfit to be a monk or nun is that they are “devoid of self-control.” If a person has no self-control, it’s clear that they won’t be able to avoid the wickedness described above. More than this, they won’t be able to follow the lesser rules for being a monk or nun, such as having to wear their robes appropriately, dignified ways of eating & the etiquette surrounding expected modes of behaviour around fellow monastics & laypeople alike. Besides rules, people without self-control won’t be able to dedicate themselves to being mindful or practicing meditation to any level of concentration. Thus, their chances of developing wisdom are not good, either. Such a lack of self-control was displayed in Thailand recently (December, 2014) by a Buddhist monk twice slapping a teacher on the face on a train over a misunderstanding. The incident was filmed and can be seen here with a fuller account of what occurred.
Truthfulness is expected of Buddhist laity as the fourth precept is the undertaking to refrain from lying, and monastics are equally expected to avoid false speech. If a monk or nun lies, how can people expect them to speak with integrity when training other monastics, giving public talks, describing their monastic achievements or counselling & guiding others? If a monk or nun is known to lie, it will be very difficult to know if what they say is true or not, including when teaching Buddhism. Did Buddha really say that in the ancient texts? Are these really the obligations of a monk or nun? Should a layperson really act this way in a monastery? Integrity in speech is crucial if we are to trust someone with our spiritual & personal concerns, and not knowing if their words are true or not is going to confuse us & possibly turn us away from the Dharma.
All this may seem depressing or even overwhelming for the dedicated Buddhist. However, it’s only have the story. There are examples of high-profile monks and nuns that have dedicated their lives to others, and are “purged of depravity, well-established in virtues and filled with self-control and truthfulness,” as the second verse above puts it. The Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh, Ayya Khema, Ajahn Chah, Shunryu Suzuki, and Pema Chödrön are but a few of the many well-known modern Buddhist renunciates that have been worthy of their robes. Such monks & nuns have led exemplary lives, not only teaching the Buddhadharma but also living in ways that have not contradicted what it means to be committed to the Buddhist life.
And, it’s not only ‘celebrity’ monks & nuns that live the true life of the Buddhist monastic, but there are plenty of relatively unknown people out there tucked away in temples, monasteries, villages, mountain hideaways and the like all as worthy of the Buddhist robes as the Dalai Lama or Thich Nhat Hanh. Near where I live here in Thailand, there are two forest monasteries, one aimed at Thais, one for foreigners, where the monk’s discipline is vigorously kept to, and the residents (both ordained and lay) commit themselves to a contemplative lifestyle based on meditation & mindfulness. Such people are an inspiration, showing that living an ethical life imbued with integrity is not just a distant dream, but an actual reality, here and now. We just need to look hard enough to find such people and appreciate them when we do. There are Buddhist monasteries & nunneries all over the world nowadays, especially from the Theravada, Tibetan & Zen traditions. For example, one tradition called the Western Forest Sangha has monastic branches in Australia, Ireland, New Zealand, Canada, Italy, Switzerland, the UK & the US, as well as those here in Thailand.
Having a teacher that one sees as being virtuous, self-controlled & truthful can be a real boon to one’s Buddhist practice. Of course, they needn’t be a celibate monk or nun, but in Buddhism they often are, and if we are a student of such a person, it’s important to be able to trust them, otherwise, why listen to word they’re saying? One of my main teachers is the famous Anglo-American monk Ajahn Sumedho. Not only is his public image & teaching role immaculate, but in private too I have found him to be warm, compassionate, wise & highly disciplined with regards to the monastic code of conduct (something he apparently learned from his teacher, Ajahn Chah). I’ve felt safe in his presence, not at risk of being misled or mistreated. And, whilst we can never fully know another person’s future actions, and to err is human, it is inspiring to have known and learned from such a human being as Ajahn Sumedho. Virtuous monastics are around – it’s up to us to seek them out and cherish them.
This isn’t to say that those people wearing Buddhist robes and doing seriously bad stuff should just be ignored – they need to be weeded out of the Buddhist orders into which they have imbedded themselves to clean up the image & reality of Buddhist monasticism in the modern world. Thailand recently set up a hotline that concerned people can call reporting the inappropriate behaviour of monks there; this is a good example of how the problem can be begun to be addressed. But, each of us – if we are serious Buddhists – should consider how we should react when confronted with those soiling their robes. Are we going to pretend it isn’t happening and allow such people to abuse the trust of both their monastic & lay followers, or will we stand up for the honour & efficacy of Buddhist monasticism? For, in the end, whether we wear those yellow (or black or maroon) robes or not, as Buddhists we all have a responsibility to make sure the Buddhadharma is tarnished by wayward monks.
The Dhammapada ('Verses of Dharma' or 'Path of Dharma') is an ancient Buddhist text that is said to contain some of Buddha's teachings in poetic form. The first chapter is called Yamakavagga, 'Chapter of Pairs,' and the above two verses are from this part of the book.